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Last week we covered the name of the Australian of the Year for 2014, and here we have another name associated with the Australia Day Foundation awards. At an Australia Day dinner in London, Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, was declared Honorary Australian of the Year for 2014.

The flamboyant mayor confessed to being a “bit baffled” by his unexpected award, which he received for promoting Australian interests, and campaigning to create visa-free labour and migration between Australia and the United Kingdom. You’ve probably heard on the news that the numbers of Antipodeans in the UK has dropped significantly, partly because of new restrictions on Australians in gaining visas and employment. It’s hard to believe that Londoners want more Australians, but Mayor Johnson will endeavour to get them more anyway.

In case you are dubious about Boris Johnson’s qualifications for being an Australian (even an honorary one), he spent a working holiday in Australia as a teenager, and seems to have had a pretty good time, and he has relatives here. He also points out that as there are more than 200 000 Australians living in London, he can be counted as mayor of the 12th largest Australian city.

Boris is a Bulgar name derived from the Turkic nickname Bogoris, usually interpreted as “short, small”, although other suggestions are “wolf” and “snow leopard, lynx, tiger”. Another theory is that the name ultimately comes from an Iranian source, and may mean “god-like”. Boris can also be used as a short form of the Slavic name Borislav, meaning “one who fights for glory”.

The first person known to history with this name is Prince Boris I, a 9th century ruler of the First Bulgarian Empire who converted to Christianity and adopted the name Mikhail. Boris seems to have converted chiefly for diplomatic and political reasons, for as a Christian ruler he could make more alliances and expand his personal power. However, his conversion also appears to be have been sincere, and at the end of his reign he abdicated to become a monk: he kept having to come out of monkish retirement to quash pagan rebellion and help out with major crises. After his death, he became known as the first Bulgarian saint.

The name Boris became particularly associated with Russia, because Boris II, the great-grandson of Boris I, formed an alliance with the Rus’ Slav prince, Sviatoslav I of Kiev. Sviatoslav’s son Vladimir the Great had a son named Boris – it is conjectured that his mother may have been Bulgarian, possibly even Boris II’s sister. The Kievan Rus’ converted to Christianity, and Boris (son of Vladimir) was later martyred and canonised, becoming one of the Russian Orthodox Church’s most revered saints. The name Boris became used in surrounding countries, and was a traditional name amongst royalty and nobility.

Boris is often seen by English-speakers as an almost comically stereotypical Russian name, and is a favourite choice for fictional villains. This may be a hangover from the Cold War, when Russians were generally portrayed as menacing “baddies”, or it may be because of the English movie star Boris Karloff (real name William Pratt), best known for playing sinister roles in Hollywood horror films such as Frankenstein and The Mummy.

Despite the name being familiar due to high profile Borises such as German former tennis champ Boris Becker, Russian author Boris Pasternak who wrote Dr Zhivago, former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, and Boris Johnson himself, Boris continues to sound rather exotic.

Boris is one of my early name loves, and I think this is because of the novels for young people by Mary Rodgers called Freaky Friday and A Billion For Boris (there’s another book in the series, but my school library didn’t have it). I liked A Billion For Boris better than Freaky Friday, probably because the idea of a psychic television which can make you rich was more appealing to me than swapping lives with my mother (an incredibly selfless workaholic whose life would be daunting for me to take on even as an adult).

Boris is (as you may remember) the tomboyish Annabel’s neighbour, childhood playmate and proto-boyfriend, and as you may also recall, during the course of Freaky Friday, it transpires that Boris’ name is actually Morris – he just has a nasally voice and says his Ms as Bs. Perhaps Mary Rodgers intended this to be a Oh thank goodness – he has a totally normal name! moment, but I was horrified.

To me, Morris was a hideous old man name, reeking of mothballs and uncoolness. Maybe in America in the early 1970s, Morris was considered an okayish name for a nerdy teenager (it only left the US Top 1000 in the 1990s), but by the time I got to read the books, it was nausea-invoking. Luckily, everyone continues to call Morris Boris for the rest of the books.

I thought then, and still tend to think now, that Boris is an awesomely hip yet huggable name, with a lot going for it. Interestingly, the name Boris has risen in popularity in the UK since the 1990s, and last year it made the Top 1000 again at #901 – it debuted there in 2004 at #999.

Political figures are not usually helpful to the popularity of their own names, yet Boris Johnson does not seem to have negatively affected the name Boris. Its rise in the UK may have more to do with the growing number of emigrants to Britain from Russia and Slavic countries though. Indeed, Boris Johnson has Russian ancestry, and describes himself as a “one man melting pot”, so melting a bit of Australian into the pot won’t be any great stretch for him.

POLL RESULT
Boris received an approval rating of 21%. 40% of people saw it as ugly and lumpy, 17% thought it was only suitable for people with Russian or Slavic heritage, and 12% preferred the name Morris. Only 5% of people thought the name Boris was handsome and exotic. 7% were put off the name by Boris Johnson.

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